Which pitchers could emerge in '07?

Which pitchers could emerge in '07?

Hank Aaron once explained the confrontation between a hitter and a pitcher this way: "The pitcher has got only a ball. I've got a bat. So the percentage of weapons is in my favor and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting."

If pitchers appear to be fretting more than hitters, it would make sense. All alone on the mound and largely responsible for keeping runs off the board, pitchers seem burdened by a great deal of pressure.

Between avoiding injury, following strange superstitions, making constant mechanical adjustments and maintaining concentration, the odds are stacked against a pitcher having a big year.

There are, however, a few tricks to identifying breakthrough candidates.

For all the talk of veteran craftiness, pitchers tend to enjoy their peak season before the age of 30. A breakout starter is typically one who's at least 25 -- an age when a pitcher's velocity often increases a few miles per hour -- and who has already tossed 500 big-league innings, after which he's come to realize that a quality pitcher not only throws hard, but throws strikes.

Of course, there are isolated cases in which a young hurler bypasses the typical stepping-stones and immediately explodes onto the Major League scene. Consider last year's class of rookie arms, which included Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Matt Cain and Francisco Liriano, to name a few.

What will 2007 bring? Here's a list of young pitchers who could make a leap in 2007:

RHP Dan Haren, Oakland A's
Despite their five-year difference in age, Haren and Atlanta's Tim Hudson boast striking similarities. Both thrived in Oakland. Both are athletic right-handers who rely on their lower bodies to power their deliveries. Both throw modest yet moving fastballs, biting sliders, solid curves and use nasty splitters as out pitches.

Unlike Hudson, though, the 26-year-old Haren is just beginning to hit his stride, having exceeded the career 500-inning benchmark last year, a season in which he improved his command to the tune of nearly four strikeouts per walk. The Pepperdine product locates his pitches well and challenges batters inside the strike zone. And he calls cavernous McAfee Coliseum home. With a thrifty A's defense behind him, expect to hear Haren's name mentioned on a short list of AL Cy Young contenders come October.

RHP Ian Snell, Pittsburgh Pirates
While Zach Duke attracted the fanfare with his emergence in 2005, it was fellow Pirates workhorse Snell who quietly established himself as the team's ace.

On the surface, Snell's 4.74 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 2006 hardly inspire enthusiasm. But a closer look at the numbers reveals an underrated talent who, among qualified National League starters age 24 or younger in 2006, racked up the second-highest strikeout total (169) and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.28).

Not once in the Bucs' 125-year history has a right-hander compiled 200 strikeouts in a season. Snell's impressive Minor League resume, confidence on the hill and ability to change speeds effectively could soon make him the first Pirates right-hander to reach that number, perhaps even in 2007. And although Pittsburgh's scant offense may limit his win potential, the team's solid defense should provide the helping hand necessary to drop his ERA below 4.00. In short, Snell could very well be the team's best right-hander since Doug Drabek.

RHP Dave Bush, Milwaukee Brewers
Among NL starters under 30 who pitched at least 200 innings in 2006, which two issued the fewest walks? Sure, Roy Oswalt is a no-brainer, but Bush? Yes, the 27-year-old right-hander found himself in elite company in his first full season in the NL, tying Oswalt with 38 free passes -- fewer than both Cy Young Award winners, Johan Santana and Brandon Webb, surrendered.

In Bush, Milwaukee found an unlikely control artist after extracting him from Toronto in the Lyle Overbay trade before the 2006 season. Whether it was the addition of a handlebar mustache, league switch or tutelage from Brewers pitching coach Mike Maddux that led to a career-high 166 strikeouts, Bush's pedestrian 4.41 ERA didn't accurately reflect his improved performance. With 444 big-league innings under his belt, Bush appears on the verge of becoming one of the league's top starters for the Brewers' rising rotation.

LHP Rich Hill, Chicago Cubs
While some strikeout pitchers need 500 innings before putting forth a monster season, others simply need to get knocked around a bit first.

For two straight years, Hill absolutely humiliated hitters at Triple-A Iowa. Translating that success to the Majors was another matter, as evidenced by his nightmarish 9.32 ERA in his first 46 1/3 innings with the Cubs.

A light bulb seemed to go off in the 26-year-old's head on Aug. 1, when he finally notched his first big-league win after 15 unsuccessful appearances. Suddenly, the mental block previously standing in Hill's way was gone, and the once-enigmatic southpaw began locating his pitches and delivered a 2.58 ERA in his final 11 starts, with the most September whiffs of any NL hurler (50).

The Michigan product also spent this past offseason refining his changeup and cut fastball, which should only enhance the quality of his virtually unhittable curve. If Hill can keep the gopher balls to a minimum, he's a good bet to challenge 200 strikeouts, 15-17 wins and play a pivotal role in the Cubs' 2007 playoff push.

LHP Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
Few NL starters enjoyed the level of late-season success of Hamels, who would have been considered a leading Rookie of the Year candidate in nearly any other year.

In the second half of 2006, the Phillies left-hander struck out 101 batters -- ranking third among all starters -- issued just 24 walks and reeled off a stellar 2.60 ERA in August and September.

Of course, he's yet to shed the injury-prone tag that's followed him in his career. Problems with his back, elbow, triceps, hand and a recent bout with shoulder soreness has made the 23-year-old a frequent visitor to the trainer's room. Still, it takes a certain kind of golden arm to skyrocket from low Class A to the Majors in just one season, as Hamels did.

The 6-foot-5 southpaw has a changeup that's practically unrivaled and is said to be in good physical condition heading into Spring Training -- which is encouraging news, considering the disabled list is all that separates Hamels from superstardom.

LHP Bill Bray, Cincinnati Reds
Sometimes, figuring out which reliever is in line for saves requires a little detective work. Consider the muddled Reds bullpen, a unit that went through three closers in 2006.

The team plans to split save opportunities between aging veterans David Weathers and Mike Stanton, assignments that have more to do with seniority and experience than anything else. But Cincinnati's best bullpen arm is Bray, a power-pitching left-hander who sported a tidy 23/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Reds as a rookie in 2006.

Cincinnati obviously has high regard for the 23-year-old, considering he was the centerpiece of the July deal that sent Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington. And though Bray received only a few save opportunities after joining the Reds, the team's acquisitions of fellow southpaws Stanton and Rheal Cormier signal the possibility that Bray may be inserted into the closer's role sooner rather than later. Either way, the hole in the back of Cincinnati's bullpen coupled with Bray's above-average command should provide the young left-hander an opportunity.

Alex Cushing is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.